The Commandments by Óskar Gudmundsson

4 Mins read
The Commandments by Oskar Gudmundsson front cover

Translated by Quentin Bates — You’ll be able to guess from the cover of this debut novel by Icelandic author Óskar Gudmundsson that it has a religious theme. More specifically, it’s about historic abuse in the church – a topic that has come to light around the world in recent years. Using a dark and harrowing mystery, Gudmundsson sets out to explore not only the nature of the crimes and the damage done to the victims, but also how willing people were to look the other way. In some cases, they still do so. Then, of course, there’s the little matter of revenge…

The novel opens with a flashback to 1995 with confusing and upsetting scenes that will only make sense later on. A play at the YMCA, drunk teenagers, a boy called Anton with anger growing inside him, parents who don’t care, and some creepy older men. Then we move ahead to 2014 and meet Hjóbjartur, doing his shopping and finding a newspaper with a report about the church covering up abuse. It irks him, but worse is to come – because soon there is an intruder in his home, someone who knows about his past. Someone who is very angry indeed…

If it weren’t for this intruder, it could be such a wistful summer for former police detective Salka Steinsdóttir. She’s back in northern Iceland, near Akureyri, doing some fly fishing, trying to recover from the breakdown of her marriage and to escape the shadows of her past. She’s worked for the police in both Iceland and the UK, but needs to step back from everything, although it’s not entirely clear why. Maybe the handsome man she’s met by the river she’s fishing will offer a distraction. There’s mutual attraction but, as luck would have it, Magnus is a fellow cop from a nearby district, also with a fishing hobby. Iceland is such a small place…

That soothing summer break comes to an end when the body of an old minister is found in the church. The local police department is short staffed so they call on Salka to help them investigate. The victim is Hróbjartur – someone Salka has come across before. Allegations of sexual abuse were made against him some years earlier but Salka and her team couldn’t find enough evidence to charge him. He walked free and she has never felt comfortable with that. Someone else obviously feels even more strongly, because Hróbjartur has been found beaten and mutilated in what resembles a ritual killing mixed with medieval torture.

Author Óskar Gudmundsson sets his stall out early on, with a tone that is dark and unsettling, and graphic descriptions of a barbaric crime. People around the case don’t want to talk and may even have something to hide. Even within the police, Salka faces obstruction – particularly from an older officer who, it turns out, was around when a boy associated with Hróbjartur disappeared. We get to see what happens when the police don’t bother investigating properly if victims are marginal or vulnerable people. Soon, a second man has been murdered and it looks like the killer has another church rector in his sites. The race is on to catch the murderer, but Salka also wants to dig deeper into the case of the missing boy, because it looks linked to her investigation.

With Salka herself we have a character who is experienced, strong and resilient, and who must push hard just to investigate the case properly. Her pathologist is solid and competent but the young policeman, Gisli, who is assisting her, is erratic and so sloppy at times that she starts to wonder about him. Salka’s professionalism is there to see in her actions, but there’s a lot of insight into her feelings as well and Óskar does a great job exploring the complexities of this when dealing with cases of historic abuse. Salka sympathises with the victim because he died horribly, but she knows he had victims too and her sympathy goes to them as well. To add to the complexity, some victims have now become perpetrators…

Little mentions of Salka’s emotional state as the story goes on create an interesting picture. Anger, sorrow, frustration, past pain – difficult as these things are, she is able to separate all of it from her work. She understands and controls her emotions, but doesn’t deny them. What this highlights is the difference between justice and revenge. Fairness and rashness. Juxtaposed with Salka, there is a killer out there who only has their anger.

The Commandments is a strong police procedural. It’s tricky and confusing but makes for smooth reading and just about everything adds up in the end. One of the murders is a bit far fetched – the police are seeking a lone killer, but the perpetrator somehow managed to crucify their victim, pinning them to the wall after knocking them out. I’ve never tried it, but I suspect it would require two people.

This is not a book about atmosphere and the author keeps descriptions light and direct, which means the story is always moving forward, with new twists and angles for Salka to deal with. The pages just keep turning. It’s inspiring to read a character like this. All around her, key male characters in the story seem to be thwarting or misdirecting her and that’s what you’ll start to focus on. What’s really going on? Just when you think the truth has been revealed Salka surprises you with a new connection that leaves you feeling not-so-witty-after-all. A fine debut, and a quick and intriguing read.

Also try The Creak on the Stairs by Eva Björg Aegisdóttir.

Corylus Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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